MOSCOW, DEC. 13 -- The Soviet media are playing the sort of political guessing games more often found inside the Beltway as President Mikhail Gorbachev ponders the choices for vice president and prime minister in his latest shake-up of executive power.

What was once the stuff of kitchen table gossip -- but unthinkable in the party-line press -- has hit the pages of the official Soviet news organs, including the Tass news agency and the government newspaper Izvestia. "Now we're more like you!" a reporter from Radio Moscow said to an American correspondent as they trolled for conjecture in the halls of the Supreme Soviet, the Soviet legislature.

The media have been chattering all week about the various possible shifts:

Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze is headed for the vice presidency, according to the newspaper Rabochaya Tribuna.

No way, says Izvestia. It's Nursultan Nazarbayev, leader of the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, for No. 2. Or perhaps for premier?

Wrong again, Tass says. Why not Arkady Volsky, Gorbachev's aide, for the premier's post?

Suddenly, the state-controlled organs of the Soviet press display all the subtlety of "The McLaughlin Group." But it is hard to ignore the increasingly high, and public, quality of political gossip. Tass, once given to announcing major changes in the Politburo in language that only monkish students of Kremlinology could decipher, now reads like a race-track tip sheet.

Tass's commentary this week headlined "Ryzhkov to Resign?" was a spasm of speculation, hinting in uncharacteristically blunt terms that Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov's days are numbered. Tass analyst Andrei Orlov wrote that Ryzhkov "is unpopular with the public," is opposed by Boris Yeltsin -- president of the Russian republic and a more popular political figure than Gorbachev -- and is viewed by the nation's 15 republics as a symbol of Kremlin authoritarianism.

Because Tass is an official news agency, the article can be considered a vehicle for the government to float ideas. Floated most visibly for prime minister are Volsky -- "popular among business managers" -- and Shevardnadze -- "he is not an ethnic Russian and this is a plus." Vadim Bakatin, replaced last week as head of the Interior Ministry, "cannot be counted out and is very popular among lawmakers and in society."

Yevgeny Primakov, Moscow's special envoy to the Middle East, is mentioned as a possible replacement for Shevardnadze as foreign minister, and Tass called Nazarbayev's possible nomination for vice president "quite logical." But "personally, I would not count out {former Politburo member} Alexander Yakovlev, who has not been seen much in public lately," Orlov wrote, practicing another fine Washingtonian art: hedging bets.

Confronted with all this at a press conference here, Nazarbayev issued a cautious, five-minute demurrer. He said he hasn't been asked to join Gorbachev's team and demanded that a telegram to that effect be published in the regional press. But he was hazier about whom Gorbachev might nominate next week when the Congress of People's Deputies, the nation's highest legislative body, opens.

As Tass said, "Every day could usher in new names." Or as they say inside the Beltway: Only time will tell.